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Days at Peking (55 ) Movie Review

heston gardner film ava

1963 – Nicholas Ray –

Some films, like Casablanca, illustrate the happy accident of filming just a day or two ahead of the writing of the script and somehow having the hectic process produce a masterpiece. Others, like 55 Days at Peking, show how risky and self-defeating such last-minute writing and plotting can be.

The film focuses on a British ambassador (David Niven), an American army commander (Charlton Heston), and a Russian duchess (Ava Gardner) in Peking at the time of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. In his recent autobiography, In the Arena, Heston explains that the movie was sold on its concept of foreigners trapped at the flashpoints of political crisis and violence, and the overconfident assumption was that the screenwriters would always be able to come up with a way to connect the presence of the various westerners in Peking to a compelling story. The problems with the film weren't lessened when director Nicolas Ray suffered a heart attack during production. He lived until 1979 but never directed another feature. In his book, Heston suggests that the temperamental behavior of Ava Gardner, who walked off the set for hours in anger after an extra snapped a picture of her, created costly delays and may have played a part in Ray's collapse: “Ava was shaken by Nick's collapse; I think she even accepted some responsibility for it. Actually, I'm not persuaded she should have. Directing a picture is the toughest job in film; Harry Truman's advice applies here: If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. I felt sorry for Nick, but I'm afraid Bill Blowitz [Heston's publicist] had been right. Nick was a loser.” Typically gracious, Heston modestly went on to The Ten Commandments.

The interactions of the characters never jell into a credible drama, and the film becomes yet another epic with impressive large-scale scenes but a neglected personal element. An early scene at a ball where some of the Boxers have been invited by the Chinese government produces the best moments of drama apart from the action scenes. On the other hand, a love affair between Heston's and Gardner's characters never catches fire. The material about the Boxers themselves and the tacit encouragement they get from the dowager empress (Flora Robson) is presented effectively, but this political drama of the government's attempt to expel foreigners from Peking really supplies only the fringe of the movie.

Cast: Charlton Heston (Major Matt Lewis), David Niven (Sir Arthur Robertson), Ava Gardner (Baroness Natalie Ivanoff), Flora Robson (Dowager Empress Tzu-Hsi), Robert Help-mann (Prince Tuan), Leo Genn (General Jung-Lu), Paul Lukas (Dr. Steinfeldt), John Ireland (Sergeant Harry), Harry Andrews (Father de Bearn), Elizabeth Sellars (Lady Sarah Robertson), Massimo Serato (Garibaldi), Geoffrey Bayldon (Smythe), Carlos Casaravilla (Japanese Minister), Michael Chow (Chiang), Felix Dafauce (Dutch Minister) Screenwriter: Bernard Gordon, Phillip Yordan Cinematographer: Jack Hildyard Composer: Dimitri Tiomkin, Paul Francis Webster Producer: Samuel Bronston Running Time: 150 minutes Format: VHS, LV Awards: Academy Awards 1963: Nominations: Song (“So Little Time”), Score.

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